The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health has been selected to participate in a 21-year study to determine how genetics and environment affect health, from the womb to adulthood.
Officials of the National Children's Study announced yesterday that Pitt and 21 other schools will join the seven "vanguard" universities already involved to track the health and development of 100,000 children representing all races, ethnic groups, regions, cultures and incomes nationwide.
The goal is to determine whether birth defects, autism, asthma, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, among other health problems, can be linked to environmental or genetic factors.
The study also will look at the effects of psychological and social factors on childhood development, including family interaction and relationships, along with time spent watching television and other activities, to better understand learning disorders.
During a national teleconference yesterday, National Children's Study officials defined the goal as to shed light on "mounting evidence that health hazards start before birth.
"Autism seems to be increasing from one in 1,000 to one in 150 children," said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the sponsoring agencies of the study. He said the incidence of asthma also is increasing. "Environmental exposures are thought to be responsible for the increases.
"We anticipate the data from the study will be used extensively in policy-making for chemical exposures, media exposures and social and behavioral experiences" that benefit or harm children, he said.
Pitt's GSPH will conduct its leg of the study in Westmoreland County and oversee a collaboration with West Virginia University, which will conduct its study in Marion County, W.Va. Those two areas fit certain demographic requirements needed for the study.
"We're thrilled to be part of the most comprehensive long-term study of childhood health in the country," said Dr. Roberta B. Ness, chairwoman of GSPH's department of epidemiology and chief investigator for Pitt's study center.
"This will be a large part of my life for the next two decades," she said, noting that Pitt officials have helped with planning and study design for years. "So it didn't just fall from the sky."
Eventually, Pitt will hire as many as 24 people to work on the study, Dr. Ness said. Pitt will open a center in Westmoreland County where staff will work and store data, while WVU will do the same in Marion County. The universities will follow demographic guidelines in choosing neighborhoods, then go door to door to recruit women to participate.
The government will spend $3.2 billion over the life of the study, which has been under way since Congress passed the Children's Health Act of 2000. Recruitment of women won't begin until summer 2009. Each of the centers will recruit 250 women each year for four years in 105 locations nationwide, and collect data at regular intervals for 21 years.
Each woman selected to participate will be in early stages of pregnancy or likely soon to become pregnant.
Besides obtaining periodic biological samples, including blood, hair and nails, investigators also will gather air, water and soil samples from their environments, including households, yards and neighborhoods.
The data will be used to determine whether environmental and genetic factors play a role in health conditions and diseases that children develop.
Those recruited for the study will be required to undergo a "fairly significant level of participation" from before pregnancy until the child reaches 21.
Although the study is